DOJ appeals judge's order to pull Interior computer systems off Internet

The Justice Department has filed an appeal of yesterday's order by judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that required the Interior Department to disconnect from the Internet its computer systems that house Indian trust data.

The latest cutoff order?limited to systems that in some cases have been disconnected from the Internet for months under previous orders in the same litigation?is part of a 9-year-old case that previously has involved the disconnection of virtually all Interior systems from the Internet.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted Lamberth's latest cutoff order cited it as a victory for their contention that Interior's computer security is so flimsy that hackers can easily penetrate the Individual Indian Trust financial records.

"It is clear from Judge Lamberth's disciplined opinion and comprehensive order that the record demonstrates that the government has done little or nothing to protect these records, notwithstanding Interior secretary Gale Norton's false claims to the contrary," said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff and member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, in a statement.

Interior officials have consistently maintained that they have an orderly plan to certify and accredit the department's systems and to eliminate security weaknesses.

However, a 59-day hearing held this summer before the judge featured testimony from computer specialists who said they had been able to penetrate the department's systems without being detected and to modify data at will.

Lamberth issued detailed instructions to the parties in the case, including an order to agree on the language of a protective order that would prevent sensitive security information from being released in court documents.

Interior spokesman Dan Dubray said, "We are working with Department of Interior IT personnel, as well as our attorneys, to interpret the order to determine what actions will be needed to comply with the order."

Dubray said the order would potentially affect about 6,000 computers in the Washington area and around the country that house Individual Indian Trust data. The order also could affect an undetermined number of computers that may provide indirect access to the trust data, he said

"Based on our initial review of this order, it will adversely impact [our efforts] to conduct program activities that benefit Native Americans, as well as other parts of the Interior Department's mission," Dubray said. "This includes our ability to collect, process and distribute rent and royalty payments that benefit Native Americans."

Lamberth included a provision in his latest cutoff order that will allow Interior to reconnect its systems to the Internet for five days each month to ensure that checks drawn on the trust funds and sent to American Indians will go out on schedule.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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